Central-Office Support for Learning Communities

by REBECCA BURNETTE DuFOUR
It’s 7:30 on Monday morning. As the principal of This-Too-Shall-Pass Elementary School reviews the pages of his daily planner, he is struck by the limited amount of time he will actually be in school this week because of scheduled meetings at the district office.

As the sole building administrator, he is expected to attend a testing coordinators’ meeting to receive information about the state assessment program; a special education eligibility meeting; technology training for administrators; the monthly districtwide administrative meeting; the elementary principals meeting; an afterschool training session on sexual harassment in the workplace; and a meeting with the transportation director and two other principals to discuss bus routes.

Maybe next week he’ll have time to focus on improving student learning in his school.

Resolving Tension
Although principals may start each day hoping to focus on student learning, the nature of the job inevitably diverts their attention and energy to other aspects of schooling—student discipline, parent conferences, personnel matters, building maintenance and so forth.

As a former principal and central-office coordinator who works with educators on implementing the professional learning community model in their schools, I understand the constant tension between the learning-centered principal’s desire to concentrate on school improvement and the urgent demands that are a natural part of any principal’s daily to-do list.

However, I have seen principals resolve that tension in ways that improve student achievement. As a result, I have come to a deeper understanding about what works and what does not work regarding continuous school improvement. I am convinced the practices of the central office play a major role in the eventual success or failure of the improvement efforts of individual schools.

Two recommendations (or more accurately, pleas) to central-office administrators can facilitate continuous improvement throughout their districts: limit the number of new initiatives and coordinate the array of central-office services.

Limit Initiatives
Nothing is more discouraging to the learning-centered principal than being deluged by disconnected, fragmented, competing initiatives generated from numerous central-office departments. Allowing each department the autonomy to launch separate initiatives that simultaneously descend upon schools is a recipe for disaster. Consider the following scenario.

The director of staff development has mandated that all professional development days will be devoted to training teachers in differentiated instruction, problem-based learning and multiple intelligences. The technology department has developed a new checklist requiring classroom teachers to assess each child’s proficiency on numerous computer skills. The math coordinator has insisted that all K-12 teachers fully use the newly adopted project-based math curriculum—even though most are unfamiliar with the concept. The assessment director has required that all K-8 teachers conduct time-intensive independent reading inventories on every student three times each year although schools are not clear on how the results will be used. The director of elementary education has decreed all schools must implement cognitive coaching by the end of the school year.

When principals and teachers confront these all-too-common scenarios, their emphasis shifts from results to activity. It is impossible to focus on the learning needs of each student when a district presents so many competing demands. Central-office administrators who support continuous school improvement heed the adage to have more than one goal is to have no goals at all. They recognize that in the arena of school improvement, less is more. They limit district initiatives and demand the coordination of all central-office services to support those limited initiatives.

Poway Unified School District in suburban San Diego serves as an example of a district that has discovered the benefits of limiting initiatives. Poway has reduced the number of district goals from more than 60 per year to just two. Every central-office staff member is called on to contribute to the achievement of those goals. Janet Malone, Poway’s director of staff development, reports the effort to limit initiatives has been extremely beneficial because there is no confusion about district priorities.

Coordinated Services
While an effective central office will speak with one voice when communicating priorities, the central office in many districts is viewed as a cacophony of competing interests. When all central-office administrators are separately chanting, “Pay attention to my directives! My initiatives are the priority!” they sow seeds of confusion, frustration and cynicism in schools.

Districts increase the likelihood of sending a consistent message throughout the district when they insist all central-office administrators function as a learning community, working interdependently as a unified team to achieve a focused, districtwide achievement goal.

Imagine a district in which the superintendent leads the administrative team through a process that establishes improved student achievement in reading as the district’s priority for all elementary schools. The superintendent then calls on each member of the team to develop a plan to contribute to that effort.

The directors of staff development, language arts, special education and Title I create ongoing training programs to provide principals and teachers with best practices for the teaching of reading. They also develop a more intensive training-of-trainers program for representative teachers from each school who have volunteered to serve as peer coaches as their colleagues implement the new strategies.

The technology director presents a variety of software programs that serve as reading tutorials for students and user-friendly programs that track each student’s mastery of essential skills. The director of assessment develops strategies to provide each school with specific, easily understandable data from the state and national assessments that will identify strengths and weaknesses in reading for students collectively and individually. He also creates a database of released test items for specific reading skills that teams of teachers can access as they develop local common assessments. He offers to train grade-level team leaders in the construction of various assessments.

The director of curriculum examines the scope and sequence of the district reading curriculum and aligns it with the state standards. She identifies several gaps, works with teachers to develop supplementary curriculum materials and makes the analysis and materials available to each school.

Role Model
In this scenario, the team rallies around a specific priority and each member is called upon to define how his or her department can customize services to support schools in their efforts to address that priority. As individual schools analyze their student achievement data and identify the training and resources necessary to move forward with the initiative, the central-office team serves as a clearinghouse of best practices and as a resource center that provides the knowledge, training, programs and support to address the unique needs of each school.

Fairfax County, Va., divides its large school district into clusters. The central-office leadership team of Cluster II has made developing professional learning communities a priority for its schools.

Ellen Schoetzau, director of Cluster II schools, built shared knowledge of the learning community concept among key staff by providing training for all central-office administrators, principals and lead teachers of every school in the cluster. She devotes the bulk of her monthly meetings with all principals to discussion of learning community concepts. Principals share and celebrate successes and support each other in overcoming obstacles.

Schoetzau also has visited each of the 29 school sites to engage in dialogue with the staff on their progress and to identify what the central office can do to assist them in their effort. She and the central-office staff then use the information garnered from these monthly meetings and school-site visits to design the appropriate support and services for each school.

When the central-office team models the clear purpose, collaborative effort and focus on results that characterize a professional learning community, it increases the likelihood that those conditions will flourish in the schools it serves. Help your principals become learning-centered leaders by giving them the gifts of limited initiatives and coordinated services from a unified central-office team.

Rebecca Burnette DuFour, a former central-office coordinator and elementary school principal in Virginia, is an educational consultant. She can be reached at 465 Island Pointe Lane, Moneta, VA 24121. E-mail: mzprinci@cablenet-va.com. She is co-author of Getting Started: Reculturing Schools to Become Learning Communities.